By Kenneth Colston’s articles and reviews have appeared in The New Criterion; LOGOS: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture; First Things; New Oxford Review; St. Austin’s Review, and Homiletic and Pastoral Review. He is a retired teacher who lives in St. Louis.
Last summer, the Bishop of Northampton rebuffed the cause for canonization of G.K. Chesterton, offering as one of three impediments that “the issue of anti-Semitism is a real obstacle particularly at this time in the United Kingdom.”
W.H. Auden fifty years ago and Adam Gopnik in the last decade both brutally tarred Chesterton with anti-Semitism—a charge Chesterton himself confronted. These two critics admired his literary work, but Auden went after Chesterton’s slippery use of “the Jewish race,” and Gopnik alleged that he “hated Jews as a people.” In his recent critical biography of the Edwardian journalist and Catholic convert, The Knight of the Holy Ghost, Dale Alquist outlines a robust refutation. Chesterton abhorred racial theories, particularly the German ones culminating in Nazism. He was a Zionist who thought “the world owed God” to a “gifted and historic race.” In The Well and the Shallows (1935), written a year before his death, he declared that he and friend Hilaire Belloc “would probably die defending the last Jew in Europe, now being jumped on most unjustly by the Germans.”
Chesterton had lifelong Jewish friends beginning at St. Paul’s School. Like FDR, he admired (and he even met) the early Mussolini for bringing order to the state, but doubted it would last unless it “brought order to the mind.” He criticized British Fascism in particular for its anti-Semitism. He thought “the Jew millionaire too safe” and the “Jew peddler too harassed,” praising and sympathizing with the latter while reserving his anger for the former, especially when corrupt, as in the Marconi scandal exposed by his brother’s newspaper that cost Cecil a charge of libel.
This allegation has been studied extensively by Anne Barber in her Chesterton and the Jews and handled succinctly by William Oddie in The Holiness of G.K. Chesterton. In his fiction, like Wells and Shaw, Chesterton did occasionally trade in negative physical and moral Jewish stereotypes—as well as those of the Italian, Irish, American, and even the English. Some publishers now remove them entirely in reprinting, along with the “N”-word and “Red Indian.” Are Wells and Shaw spared of the accusation of anti-Semitism today because they weren’t orthodox Catholics?
Barber admits that Chesterton even wildly surmised that some blurry historic truth may have lain behind the medieval blood libel, albeit of a mythic sort. More troubling is the political broad brush by which he blamed Jews as a class for “forcing” imperialist wars. For example, in The Well and the Shadows, he wrote, “From the time when they forced the Egyptian War to the time when they forced the South African War, [the Jews] were imperial and immune.”
Curiously, Hannah Arendt favorably cites Chesterton’s claim of a pre-Great War “Jewish chauvinism” as a “perverted nationalism” in her Antisemitism. Moreover, not having lived to witness the horror of the Holocaust, Chesterton could not foresee, for example, that his crack that Jews could serve Her Majesty’s government if they “were dressed like Arabs” would today have a chilling ring. The word “race” itself, especially to a race denier, back then fell more innocently and broadly. Journalism has never been tame, and Chesterton’s age certainly allowed—and may have required—rough-and-tumble. London Jewish leaders were not so repelled that they did not invite him to speak at their conferences. Has it been forgotten that adversarial debate was once a gentleman’s sport? Saints may sometimes need to spar for truth in the fallen world.
Chesterton’s championing of the common man, the democrat, the underdog, the French peasant, and the orthodox Jew suffering from Czarist pogroms mitigates the tout court anti-Semitic charge if it does not defang it entirely. The distinctions of a thicker-skinned past must also be recognized: however much it makes us cringe, intemperate name-calling—while impolite and unjust and even sinful—is not generic hatred. Chesterton’s generous view of humanity, embracing observant Jews with enough special affection to be called a “Philosemite” by Oddie, is the overwhelming verdict of his prodigious output.
In his fiction, he drops the stereotypes well before he commits character assassination: he is far more interested in the idea, the argument, and the gag of the story, and in the bizarre running and walking of “The Queer Feet,” the double identity in “The Duel of Dr. Hirsch,” and the journalistic compromise and aristocratic humbug in “The Purple Wig.” These three Father Brown stories are often cited as evidence of anti-Semitic shadows. Yet what are these shadows? A Jewish French millionaire with a heavy Gallic accent owns a hotel frequented by a club of English oligarchs; a red-headed Jewish atheist scientist in France is accused of giving the recipe for a potent Noiseless Powder to Germany (think Dreyfus affair); a copy editor cowed by his commercial publisher replaces the word “Jew” with “Alien.” The spotlight shines elsewhere.
These fleeting shadows in clever pulp fiction are hardly enough to charge that he hated the Jewish people. Although he feared deracinated disloyalty to England (while being a severe critic of English imperialism), he hated duplicity and plutocracy and most of all usury, a sin sadly forgotten by both liberal and conservative Catholics. He did fail sometimes to distinguish between individuals committing economic injustice and the injustice of an entire people (whom he otherwise credits with Justice and the discovery of God), as we are guilty now of overlooking the sinful injustice of predatory money altogether. The bishop’s diplomatic phrasing cited above (which may allude to accusations against Roger Scruton and Jeremy Corbyn) turns us aside from an objective judgment—one that we can make more firmly from the vast public record of his publications.
Chesterton’s greatest ethnic slurs by far, however, were piled not on the Jews but on a “race” unrecognized today. He reserved his most intense loathing for Prussian barbarism, Prussian efficiency, Prussian bureaucracy, and Prussian aggression, before the Great War and then again as the Nazi storm was gathering at his death. Indeed, even German scholarship set him off: English literature and culture, he insisted, was not Teutonic but Latin. Chesterton’s demonization of Prussia lacked balance: “Satan made flesh on the fields of Flanders,” he wrote in a letter to Shaw.
Historians have questioned whether the Belgian atrocities of 1914 were an exaggerated pretext for the British war party; they have pointed out that Germany’s invasion of France was triggered by Russian mobilization, the warren of treaties, open and secret, British naval power, and the realistic fear of a multi-front catastrophe. There are warrior saints, and impeccable prudential judgment is not a requirement for canonization. The “othering” of enemies may at rare times be a survival strategy; often it is self-defeating and suicidal. There is no danger, however, to Chesterton’s cause there: Prussians lack modern-day watchdogs.
Correcting the anti-Semitic smear could even heal Church divisions. Although he is more the champion of conservative Catholics, Chesterton offers both sides much to promote. Both can celebrate his double-barreled economic critique of big money and big government—plutocratic “Gudge” and bureaucratic “Hudge”—bridging the economic division between the parties in his Distributist League: social justice by the productive property of independent households, local shops, and worker owners.
Moreover, as a Little Englander who opposed the Boer War and the British occupation of Egypt, he can appeal to the anti-imperialism of leftist pacifists and realist paleoconservatives. Yet his persistent opposition to Prussian barbarism (which culminated in Nazism) avoids the isolationist indifferentism feared by neoconservatives.
An admirer of the French republic, he called for a revolutionary restoration of property on behalf of homeless Jones against usurious landlords. He opposed women’s suffrage but championed motherhood to protect humanity from malingering, monomaniacal men. The left can love his economics; the right, his traditional values. Chesterton’s intellect strides the divide between the social justice warriors and the radical traditionalists, and it should not take a miracle for them to come together in a far-flung literary cultus around his cause.